Council to review EMS call policy

Paramedics lift a stretcher back into a Guilfoyle ambulance in January 2019 at the company’s Watertown location along Newell Street. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — City Council members made it clear on Monday night: They want Jefferson County dispatchers to handle emergency medical calls for the city’s fire department.

Council members informally agreed on Monday that they will vote on a resolution next week that would make a major change that would mean county dispatch would determine which EMS calls the fire department would go on.

County dispatchers now notify the fire department after a call comes in to them and they automatically send out a fire engine to the scene. They also use a complicated system, called Emergency Management Dispatch, or EMD, to determine the level of service that goes out on calls for most of the other towns in the county.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said that city residents should get the same service that 75 percent of the residents in the county receive.

“City residents pay the same taxes as other taxpayers in the county,” the mayor said. “They don’t get a discount.”

During a 90-minute work session, council members hashed out how they want EMS calls to be handled. The issue came up as the majority of the council wants to drastically reduce the number of calls the fire department responds to.

At a council meeting three weeks ago, council members decided to take the rescue truck off the road for good.

Much of Monday night’s discussion centered around Jefferson County dispatchers following EMD protocol to ask a caller a series of questions before determining the level of response. Guilfoyle Ambulance Service, a privately owned company, covers the city and uses the EMD system when it goes on ambulance calls.

The EMD system basically triage 911 calls to determine the seriousness of the call and what kind of response should be sent.

But Scott A. Gray, the county Board of Legislators chairman, said later the change of having county dispatchers using EMD would cost the county $300,000 because it would have to hire about five additional dispatchers to handle EMS calls in that manner.

Mr. Gray, who did not attend Monday night’s work session, contends that the mayor is advocating a $300,000 tax increase that taxpayers now pay for through a user fee with Guilfoyle.

The change “is polar opposite of what the public should expect in tight fiscal times,” he said.

At first, Mayor Smith insisted on Monday night that the county make the change in about three or four months. County Legislator Anthony J. Doldo, who represents the northwest side of the city, said the county would need more time to discuss it with EMS staff and county administration before it could be implemented.

Mr. Doldo thinks that city residents are content with the way EMS calls are handled now, with the fire department automatically going on calls because they get to the scene so quickly during an emergency.

“I’m happy to pay for that service,” he said.

It works well in the county because dispatchers can finish going through the series of questions before volunteer firefighters can get to their respective fire stations and head to the scene, Mr. Doldo said.

Fire Chief Matthew Timerman noted that the cost is minimal for the fire department to automatically to head out on a call, since it could mean the difference in saving a life. It costs about $5,500 in medical supplies and about $11,000 annually in fuel expenses to go out on every call.

Once the council approves the resolution next week, City Manager Kenneth A. Mix and Chief Timerman will start meeting with the county’s EMS staff and County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III to work out an agreement to make the change.

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